Old Home Day: tolling them back home

As much as Vermonters have loved their home state, they have not been stay-at-homes. Throughout the 19th century, a Vermonter might be found almost anywhere: marching into battle in the Civil War, trailing to Oregon, striking out for the gold fields of the West, putting down roots in the Midwest, working in the mills of Massachusetts, sailing the seas in search of whales, leaving with the Mormon exodus, and in public office across the nation.

American history reflects the Vermont diaspora. The Northwest Territories opened up in 1797 and Vermonters flocked there. There is a Vermontville, Michigan, a Vermont, Wisconsin, and a Montpelier, Idaho. Billings, Montana, is named for Woodstock’s own Frederick Billings, an official with the Northern Pacific, which opened the northern Plains for wheat.

But as much as these movements contribute to the national pride, they were often bittersweet, and there was dismay at home as the next generation left the farms and hearthsides, and family ties threatened to loosen.

Lewis Stilwell’s “Migration from Vermont, 1776-1850,” published in 1948 by the Vermont Historical Society, is the benchmark study of Vermont “out-migration.” Stilwell wrote that by the 1840s the state seemed to be emptying out. The next wave came when Vermont Civil War veterans discovered Midwestern farmland without rocks. Rutland-born John Deere was already there to sell them his new plow. Ames, Iowa, was founded by Vermonters, post-Civil War.

Vermont was not the only state affected. In 1897, Governor Rollins of New Hampshire deplored the loss of the younger generation, writing: “Come back, come back. … What has become of the old home where you were born? Do you not remember it – the old farm back among the hills …?” He came up with the idea for Old Home Week, an open invitation for New Hampshireites to visit back home, honor their roots, and rekindle old relationships.

New Hampshire was economically depressed, and he also hoped that they would decide to move back, buy the abandoned farms and rebuild civic institutions. He pitched the idea to the New Hampshire Board of Agriculture, and they ran with it.

Gary Crooker’s “New Hampshire Old Home Celebrations” (2009) in the Images of America Series (Arcadia Publishing) gives the whole story.

The first annual homecoming was held in 1899. Hanover, Newport, Walpole and 41 other towns promptly got on board. The celebrations built upon the rural tradition of country fairs, community suppers and socials. There were bonfires, parades, band concerts, speeches, and dances. Souvenir programs were printed. Old Home Week caught on in other Eastern states, for the same reasons.

This year, as many states fret over dwindling population, the Old Home Day observances take on a renewed meaning.

Just out of curiosity, UVM geography professor Cheryl Morse and Wendy Geller of the Vermont Dept. of Education made a grassroots survey of Vermonters who left Vermont, returned, or stayed home after high school, and posted it on their Facebook pages. The only stipulation was that respondents must have lived in Vermont during high school. They asked about people’s about reasons for leaving, staying or returning and also invited personal comments. They definitely touched a nerve – they got 3,692 responses over a three-week period in March-April 2014.

Their Vermont Roots Migration Project found that Vermonters tend to leave for better jobs, lower cost of living, change of scene, or marriage. But a full 85 percent of those who live “away” describe feeling homesick for Vermont; and nostalgia for family, community and the land brings them back. … as long as there is work.

~BM~

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